A NEW NAME for the competition, an old name – Simon Zebo – returns for Munster. It isn’t hard to figure out what the returning fans will be more excited about. While the artist formerly known as the Celtic League is now dressed up as the United Rugby Championship, by this stage we’ve all figured out it is better to trust your eyes rather than your ears.
So while the hype surrounding the entry of South Africa’s four strongest provinces is unsurprising, unless they play to their potential, it won’t be long before the grumbling starts. During the summer, the British and Irish Lions exposed the Sharks’ limitations while memories of the dire Southern Kings and the hot-and-cold Cheetahs are fresh enough to stop us getting prematurely convinced about what the newbies have to offer (tonight, Thomond Park, kick-off 7.35pm, live RTE2).
Who knows, maybe they will be brilliant. Perhaps all four South African teams will be. You hope this is the shot in the arm this competition needs. But a new format does not necessarily equate to a new dawn. This rebranded championship has a lot to do before the doubters will be won over about its quality.
Even so, it’s in everyone’s interests for the restructured competition to be a success. If Irish clubs are to succeed in Europe again, they’ll need to arrive battle-hardened into the Champions Cup. The woefully inconsistent Scottish and Welsh sides didn’t always provide the best prep work – especially last year – while Benetton’s success in last season’s Rainbow Cup made you wonder why they’d been so awful across the previous two years.
Munster, as Johann Graan made a point of telling us during the week, were far from awful last year, winning 80 per cent of their matches. They’ve made a habit of losing the ones that count, though. Leinster in the Pro14, Connacht in the Rainbow Cup, Toulouse in the Champions Cup, were bitter defeats.
There’s something about their line-up tonight, however, which offers a little hope. Zebo’s return is a big thing but so is RG Snyman’s. The giant South African had his first season in Limerick wiped out with a knee injury. Seeing him on the bench offers Munster a glimpse of what’s possible when you have an absolute brute of an enforcer staring across at opposing second-rows.
The biggest change, though, may be more subtle. While CJ Stander was a superb servant and impressive in terms of his consistency, there is a genuine hope that Gavin Coombes’ permanent relocation from blindside to No8 offers the team a better ball-player from the base of the scrum.
Throw in the choice of Craig Casey at scrum-half, whose eye for a break is complemented by the willingness of his outhalf, Joey Carbery, to run the ball as well as just kick it, and you have potential for a better brand of rugby to be played.
Of course all this is really only possible if the boys up front provide the 8-9-10 combo with a platform to work off. Like Carbery and Snyman, Dave Kilcoyne’s season was badly interrupted last season with injury. He knows he finally has the chance to become Ireland’s permanent No1 this season after the longest apprenticeship imaginable. There’s no better time to stake a claim than now.
It wasn’t that long ago that Niall Scannell and John Ryan were performing decently in a Test series for Ireland in Australia, clearly a more challenging arena than this. They’ll need to rediscover that form very promptly if they’re to wear a green shirt this season.
You’d also imagine Fineen Wycherley and Jack O’Donoghue – named in the second row and back row respectively – have had similar internal conversations about pushing on from the provincial scene to become regular starters with Ireland rather than onlookers. This is audition time. Do it here, against allegedly strong opposition, and their case can be made a lot more noisily.
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As for Munster, at various stages this season, people will refer to their 10-year title drought, and while many believe the addition of the South African Four will make that job more difficult for them, the reality is they’ve plenty going for them.
They’ve been backed in the market – neither Snyman nor Damian De Allende come cheap – they have a crop of players in the right age-bracket, from Casey to Carbery, Coombes to Wycherley, and they have depth in most departments. Plus they have their fans back. Those returning patrons should get plenty to cheer about this evening.
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Dan Goggin, Rory Scannell, Simon Zebo; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O’Mahony (C), Jack O’Donoghue, Gavin Coombes.
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox, RG Snyman, Thomas Ahern, Rowan Osborne, Ben Healy, Chris Cloete.
Sharks: Bosch Curwin; Penxe Yaw, Kok Werner, Louw Marius, Abrahams Thaakir; Chamberlain Henry (Boeta), Pienaar Ruan; Mona Khwezi, Van Vuuren Kerron, Du Toit Thomas; Roets Le Roux, Grobler Gerbrandt; Richardson Dylan, Venter Henco, Buthelezi Phepsi (C).
Replacements: Mbatha Fez (FRR), Mchunu Ntuthuko (FRR), Mchunu Khutha (FRR), Gumede Mpilo, Van Heerden Ruben, Andrews Hyron, Nohamba Sanele, Ward Jeremy.Internet Explorer Channel Network